Monday, October 31, 2016

The Pit (aka Teddy) movie review

I watched The Pit for the first time many years ago after purchasing a used VHS copy from a video store when those two things were still the norm. Back then, DVDs were just starting to take over as the favoured format to watch a movie and video stores would often sell used VHS copies in their inventory to make room on their shelves. Out with the old, in with the new.

As I was browsing through the selections that were for sale, one in particular, caught my attention. The art on the cover is what attracted me to it. It's a different version than the official movie poster but it still grabbed me.

horror movie posterThe original poster depicts a young boy with a bowl style haircut, clutching a teddy bear with glowing eyes and he's kneeling in front of a large pit. A pair of hands are shown belonging to someone apparently trying desperately to claw their way out from whatever horror awaits them at the bottom. We get a hint with the image of a creature's hand hauling down the potential victim and three sets of glowing, ominous eyes. Fittingly, it was titled The Pit but it was also known as Teddy. The latter was obviously in reference to the teddy bear but could also be a nod to the sheer teddy that the babysitter immodestly wears in view of a curious boy.

The cover alone was enough to make me buy it. It is said to never judge a book by its cover but I never paid attention to that when it came to VHS box art. Some of the best horror movies I've ever watched were the ones I rented solely based on the cover art. When I say best, I mean that in the obscure, low-budget, so-bad-it's-good b-movie sense.

If the art wasn't enough, reading the synopsis on the back of the cover would seal the deal and convince me that I had to have this horror movie.

Plus, for only $5, the price was right.

VHS cassette
The Pit on VHS
That day, I became the proud owner of my very own copy of The Pit on VHS. When I got home and popped it into my VCR, I wasn't sure of what I was about to watch. As it turns out, that was the first of many viewings and I have no regrets of my fateful blind purchase.

Oh, and I still have that VHS cassette to this day even though I no longer have a functioning VCR player.

The Pit is a bizarre little horror movie that straddles the line between a good film and a bad film and that's what makes it interesting to me. The script writer (Ian A. Stuart) aimed for the former while the director (Lew Lehman) leaned towards the latter. The result is somewhere in the middle and culminates into a creepy story that has made it a cult favourite. Is it a monster movie or is it something else altogether?

Here's how The Pit is described on the back of its VHS cover:

Jamie Buchanan, a twelve year old autistic boy, is sick and tired of the cruel people in his midwestern town. The children humiliate him, the grown-ups ignore him and the mature females excite him. Jamie gets his chance for revenge on all of them when he accidentally discovers a huge hole in the forest, at the bottom of which are strange and deadly prehistoric creatures he calls Tra-la-logs. The Trogs become Jamie's best friends and it isn't long before some of Jamie's worst enemies begin disappearing...

The scenes that show Jamie (Sammy Snyders) interacting with Teddy are definitely what gives the story most of its creepiness. As a viewer, you're never sure if the conversations between the two are real or if they are imagined by Jamie. When you think you know the answer, the line is blurred and the creep factor increased when we the viewers see Teddy with nobody else in the room and it turns its head.

I'm telling you, it's creepy as hell. It's the type of scene that gives me the heebie-jeebies.

VHS back cover
VHS back cover of The Pit
A lot of the creepiness also comes from how strange Jamie is and acts. His odd personality and weird behaviour leads to him being bullied and teased by just about everyone in town. Mostly, it's undeserved but his interactions with his beautiful babysitter Sandy (Jeannie Elias) and an older, attractive librarian named Miss Livingstone (Laura Hollingsworth), sends up several red flags.

In one scene, Sandy awakes in bed with one of her breasts exposed and is shocked to see Jamie is in the room and has been watching her sleep. She covers herself up and lectures Jamie but he doesn't understand what he has done wrong.

"I was just watching you sleep!" he innocently professes.

In another scene that defies logic, with the aid of a tape-recorded message from a telephone booth, Jamie blackmails Miss Livingstone into undressing in front of her window while he takes Polaroid pictures of her. He does this by convincing her that her niece Abergail (which he pronounces Abregail) has been kidnapped and won't be released unless she does what he says.

Later, Jamie and Teddy look at the nude photos in Jamie's bedroom leading Teddy to exclaim, "I'm gonna look at these a lot!"

Abergail (Andrea Swartz) is one of the children that is cruel to Jamie. If she was a little kinder to him maybe she and others wouldn't be on Jamie's hit list of mean people. After discovering the pit in the woods with tra-la-logs as he calls them, he may have found a way to dispose of his tormentors.

The trogs themselves are somewhat frightening when they're lurking in the shadows and we don't see too much of them. However, once they are out in broad daylight in full view, it becomes obvious that they're nothing more than short actors in costumes and that weakens the movie a bit. The costumes aren't terrible but they could have been much better.

Nevertheless, this is a film that will leave you with a creepy feeling in the pit of your stomach. Also, the fact that the movie starts with kids celebrating Halloween makes it an appropriate choice to watch on the spookiest of holidays.

Enjoy The Pit for what it is which is a simple, low-budget  monster movie with some creepy moments.

In the script by Ian A. Stuart, Jamie mispronounces troglodytes as troglodies but for some reason in the movie, the director had Jamie mispronounce it as the very silly-sounding tra-la-logs. Every time I heard Jamie say tra-la-logs, it kept reminding me of The Tra-La-La Song, the theme of The Banana Splits TV series. I could never get it out of my head whenever he said it.

That got me thinking. What if I rewrote the lyrics to describe the plot of The Pit and called it The Tra-la-log Song?

I think this sums up the movie quite nicely. Sing along, now.

The Tra-la-log Song

Tra-la-log la-la-la-log
Tra-la-log la-la-la-log
Tra-la-log la-la-la-log
Tra-la-log la-la-la-log

One tra-la-log two tra-la-log three tra-la-log four
Down in the pit along with many more
Horrible and hungry with spooky eyes that glow
They wait for little Jamie to send some food below

No need for it to be well-done
They'll eat raw meat or anyone
The feeding frenzy has just begun

Tra-la-log la-la-la-log
Tra-la-log la-la-la-log
Tra-la-log la-la-la-log
Tra-la-log la-la-la-log

Four tra-la-log three tra-la-log two tra-la-log one
With Jamie's help they climb out and now you'll need a gun
Strangely this all happens in case you aren't aware
When Jamie takes advice from his talking teddy bear

Tra-la-log la-la-la-log
Tra-la-log la-la-la-log
Tra-la-log la-la-la-log
Tra-la-log la-la-la-log

Just imagine that instead of the trogs at the bottom of the pit, it was The Banana Splits hungrily devouring the poor unsuspecting souls lured by Jamie. You know Drooper would totally eat anyone that fell into the pit. He looks like he would have a serious case of the munchies. I would absolutely watch a horror movie called The Banana Split Pit.


Williams Free Library front
Williams Free Library in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin  - photo by James Steakley

Although The Pit was a Canadian production with Canadian actors, it was filmed in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin for whatever reason. I guess there's nowhere in Canada where you can dig a large hole in the ground, although the interior pit scenes were filmed on a sound stage in Toronto.

One thing that is far from a hole in the ground is the Williams Free Library in Beaver Dam which is where the exterior library scenes and I presume interior scenes were shot. It was built in 1891 and its first librarian was Mary J. Doolittle. It is now a historical society museum.

The director's wife did not want him shoot the nude scenes, so the screenwriter shot them instead. The only nude scene that the director was allowed to film was the "skinny dipping" scene because the actress was his daughter. Not only was the movie creepy but behind the scenes was even creepier.

If you yourself are a librarian and would be interested in reading a movie review of The Pit that focuses on Miss Livingstone, check out Reel Librarian's in depth analysis of the librarian's role. See what I did there? Check out? Because you check out a book at a library. Just a little pun for you library geeks out there.

Ironically, although VHS became obsolete when DVDs became the new format, It wouldn't be until 2016 until The Pit was released on its own on both DVD and Blu-ray, which made the movie quite difficult to find with a picture of good quality.

Sonja Smits, who was also in Videodrome, played Jamie's school teacher.

I'm not the only one who loves this movie. Jeff Twiller and his angry friend Randy from the Twillerzone give a great review of The Pit.

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